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FARMINGTON — When the U.S. Department of Justice announced this week that the federal government will resume capital punishment and scheduled executions for five inmates, the list included a member of the Navajo Nation.

The Navajo Nation has taken a stance against the death penalty since 1991 because it does not comply with Diné culture, tradition and values, including the belief in restoring harmony by restitution and not by taking human life for vengeance.

Lezmond Mitchell was convicted in 2003 of murdering Alyce Slim, 63, and her 9-year-old granddaughter, Tiffany Lee.

The victims were members of the Navajo Nation, having lived in Fort Defiance, Arizona, and their dismembered bodies were found in 2001 near Tsaile, Arizona, according to The Daily Times archives.

In January 2002, the Navajo Nation Department of Justice opposed the plan by federal prosecutors to seek the death penalty for Mitchell, according to The Daily Times archives.

Since his case involved a carjacking, it gave prosecutors the ability to seek capital punishment without the tribe's permission because of interstate laws, according to the archives.

Guilty of murder

A federal jury found Mitchell, from Round Rock, Arizona, guilty of several offenses, including first-degree murder, carjacking resulting in death and felony murder, according to court records.

He is the only Native American among 62 federal death row prisoners and the last federal execution happened in 2003, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

The July 25 press release from the DOJ states that U.S. Attorney General William Barr directed the Federal Bureau of Prisons to execute the five men by a single drug, pentobarbital.

Three executions are scheduled for December, including Mitchell on Dec. 11, and the remaining two in January.

"The Justice Department upholds the rule of law – and we owe it to the victims and their families to carry forward the sentence imposed by our justice system," Barr said in the release.

When the federal government amended capital punishment laws 25 years ago, a provision was made for tribes to choose to opt in to the federal death penalty.

Tribe opposes capital punishment

The tribe's point of view has been repeatedly expressed in letters written by the tribe's attorneys general and by a chief justice to congressional members and to federal attorneys in Arizona and New Mexico.

The latest was a July 2014 letter by then-Chief Justice Herb Yazzie to John Leonardo, who served as U.S. Attorney for the District of Arizona from 2012 to 2017.

"Capital punishment is a sensitive issue for the Navajo people. Our laws have never allowed for the death penalty. It is our belief that the negative force that drives a person to commit evil acts can only be extracted by the creator. People, on the other hand, are vehicles only for goodness and healing," Yazzie wrote.

Noel Lyn Smith covers the Navajo Nation for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4636 or by email at nsmith@daily-times.com.

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